CONCORD, N.H. — The rape case against a man charged with assaulting and impregnating a 15-year-old from his congregation is about force, fear and her faith in a church that shamed her and banished her to Colorado, a New Hampshire prosecutor said Monday.
The trial of Ernest Willis of Gilford opened on a dramatic note, when the woman who says he raped her twice in 1997 testified about how “brutal” it was to face hundreds of churchgoers at Concord’s Trinity Baptist Church and apologize for getting pregnant out of wedlock.
Tina Anderson, now 29, said she felt “completely humiliated. I felt like my life was over.”
She says then-pastor Chuck Phelps arranged for her to move in with a Baptist family in Colorado and place her infant daughter up for adoption. She said she believed for years what church leaders told her: The rapes were her fault and she must learn to forgive and forget.
The Associated Press typically doesn’t identify those who say they are victims of sexual assault, but Anderson has agreed to have her name published and has been the subject of extensive media coverage because of the circumstances of the case.
On cross-examination, Anderson lashed out at defense attorney Donna Brown for “badgering her” about discrepancies in her recollection of the sequence of events that summer.
“You cannot remember when you are 15 years old and scared out of your mind,” Anderson told Brown. “It doesn’t mean I was lying. I felt like my life was over.”
Anderson was the prosecution’s first witness and testified for about two hours.
Initially, Phelps reported the allegations to Concord police, but investigators could not locate Anderson and the case was shelved. It wasn’t until 2010 that websites decrying the so-called cult-like nature of the fundamentalist Baptist religion helped lead police to Anderson, now living in Arizona with her husband and three children.
Anderson said she felt “complete shock” when she picked up the phone on her husband’s birthday last year and a Concord detective asked whether she wanted to discuss what happened in 1997. Her voice cracked throughout much of her first hour of testimony Monday, and she said the questions dredged up “just a lot of bad memories.”
Willis, 51, pleaded guilty last week to one count of having sex with Anderson, who was under the legal age of consent at the time. Willis denies having sex with her on more than one occasion and claims the sex was consensual.
Anderson acknowledged Monday she did go to dinner with Willis at a posh restaurant at around the time of her 16th birthday in 1997, after she said both rapes occurred.
“I needed to tell him I was pregnant,” Anderson testified. “I can’t explain some of the things I did. I was trying to be the good Christian I was supposed to be — to forgive and forget and pretend it never happened.”
Brown said in her opening statements Monday that Willis will testify. Brown asked jurors to give more weight to what Anderson said in 1997, when Brown says she told her mother and Phelps the two had sex on only one occasion and did not say Willis forced himself on her.
Anderson testified she told both her mother and Phelps the sex was not consensual.
Prosecutor Wayne Coull asked jurors to ask themselves when she leaves the witness stand whether they believe she is telling the truth.
“If the answer is yes,” Coull said, “find him guilty of a secret that’s been kept for far too long.”
The last witness Monday was Anderson’s mother, Christine Leaf, who testified that she does not support her daughter, saying, “I only support the truth, not a lie.”
Leaf has refused to comment publicly about whether she requested, or consented to, Anderson’s relocation to Colorado. She acknowledged there is a letter of support for Phelps, written by her lawyer and signed by her, that appears on Phelps’ website.
Leaf asserted that sending Anderson out of state to have her baby “was my idea.” Leaf at first testified that she wanted her daughter to move to Colorado to have a better life. Minutes later she stated, “I needed to get her out of the house because she was very mean to me.”
Leaf said Willis paid for Anderson’s airfare to Colorado.
Leaf’s testimony resumes Tuesday. The trial in Merrimack Superior Court is expected to last four days.
Willis faces a sentence of up to 20 years in prison if convicted of any of the three aggravated sexual assault charges against him.